How Positive Psychology Might Contribute to Human EvolutionAs the study of human flourishing, Positive Psychology aims beyond fixing problems to enhancing life and experience. With the boom of nanotechnology, brain implants, and increasingly sophisticated computing and intelligence technologies, we might be seeing a fundamental change in the human part of human flourishing.
In the domain of habits, practice, and interventions, Positive Psychology continues to open new insights to well-being and all the wonderful emotions therein. My purpose here is to explore how Positive Psychology might guide the efforts of emerging technologies in a transition to human life beyond biology (posthumanism) and greatly enhanced human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities (transhumanism).
Examples of Technologies leading to Posthumanism and Transhumanism
Even ten years ago, the idea of posthumanism and transhumanism would have seemed like science fiction, but thanks to recent developments in neuroscience and nanotechnology, the phrase “overcoming biology” seems more and more inevitable.For example, the BrainGate™ program at Brown University headed by renowned scientist John P. Donoghue has created implanted sensors that pick up neural activity in the brains of paralyzed patients and allow for the movement of prosthetic limbs using thought alone.
Other examples of futuristic technologies include work by the Monash Vision Group on a brain implant that allows legally blind patients to pick up shades and shapes using information from an external camera that is sent directly to a chip in the visual cortex. Other groups are working on retinas that could be implanted directly into the eye itself.
We’re no longer talking about cool new gadgets. We’re talking about changing or replacing fundamental elements of what we consider to be human within us. The ramifications for psychology are extensive. Studying current models of human fulfillment makes sense for the transition to posthumanism and transhumanism.
Positive Psychology Can Guide Efforts to Enhance
First, the odds are not that our brains will be replaced by machines any time soon, but rather that the enhancements of brain implants and other technology will serve to augment and (hopefully) further our already existing experience and faculties.
Keeping this in mind, we might leverage implants to not only repair humans (helping the blind to see), but also to further our ability to feel compassion, to learn more effectively and gain more joy from learning, and to exercise our values and strengths in a more cognizant way. All of these enhancements could result in a greater experience of meaning and fulfillment.
Brains of the future may in fact be calibrated to maintain certain beliefs or behaviors in spite of temptations to stray from these values. In fact they may allow for not only greater control, but greater freedom to exercise a more powerful volition and cognition, resulting in experiences of flow beyond any that a normal human might hope to attain today. We can imagine ways that exercising higher faculties might result in greater well-being.
Positive Psychology Can Aid Efforts to Replicate
A second reason to leverage Positive Psychology’s insights in a transition to posthumanism is that a good deal of the further development of artificial intelligence involves modeling and replication of the brain and its structures, which might include applications of theories about what correlates to, indeed even causes, different positive emotions and experiences.Much of the structural work will be accomplished through developments in biology and neuroscience. On the theory side, then, it will make sense to examine different models of human fulfillment to aide the technical developments in brain science.
We could simply dissect Seligman’s concept of PERMA (positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment) to explore how our cognitive enhancements might effect these five factors. We need to be careful about the balance among them. For example, if we are able to enhance positive emotions relatively easily through an implant, is it also possible that this enhancement could lead to a lazier, placated life where we then lose touch with meaning, relationships, and accomplishment?
The same might be said of a model for Self-Determination Theory. The constituents of autonomy, competence, and relatedness might be another interesting lens through which we might look at the conscious experience of an enhanced person to determine the impact on this individual’s well-being. Is it possible that some ways of increasing autonomy might have a detrimental impact on relatedness? Or might we discover higher-order psychological needs in higher-level beings, ones that no present models of fulfillment can account for?
Food for Thought
I content that psychology and philosophy can serve neuroscience in the same way that architecture serves engineering. By guiding and evaluating the technical efforts, our work may serve humanity even when we begin to step beyond humanity’s boundaries.
As technology advances, only time will tell how long it will be before significant enhancement takes place. Despite the many uncomfortable connotations of enhancing and replicating consciousness, it might serve as a comfort and a point of control that Positive Psychology may have a significant role in how the future of human experience and well-being might be, well… enhanced.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.. New York: Harper Perennial.
Donoghue, J. P., Nurmikko, A., Black, M. & Hochberg, L. R. (2007). Assistive technology and robotic control using motor cortex ensemble-based neural interface systems in humans with tetraplegia. Journal of Physiology, Special Issue on Brain Computer Interfaces, 579(3), 603-11.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior (Perspectives in Social Psychology). New York: Plenum Press.
Photo Credit via Compfight with a Creative Commons license
Wheelchair array courtesy of Leo Reynolds
Evolution sequence courtesy of firstname.lastname@example.org
Question Mark courtesy of the Italian voice
Enhanced brain courtesy of killermonkeys
Loved the article Dan. I think we are at an interesting tipping point in our evolution because for the first time I think we have the capacity to insert some intentionality into the evolution process. It is interesting to think how our technological advances might help or hinder this process. It is easy to imagine, for example, a future where all memory is stored “in the cloud.” We are already increasingly relying on devices to store our information so perhaps the human brain of the future will not need to have as much storage. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? We need a revival of philosophy to help us answer these questions.
Another example is the precarious balance that Mother Nature has made between the size and development of the human brain and the width of the female birth canal. With the advent and rise of C-sections, it is easy to imagine a future where most babies are delivered surgically. This could allow for leaps forward in human brain development by manually bypassing the birth canal but leads us into a brave new world where babies might mature and develop outside the womb.
We need to think about these things, not only in the context of positive psychology, but ethics, philosophy, evolutionary psychology, biology, etc. More than ever before we have the opportunity to be self-determined in our evolution, but only if we ask the question, “what do we want the future of humanity to be?”
Dan, this is an excellent article because you’ve ventured into two of the most important questions of our time and challenged both positive psychology practitionners and researchers to confront them. The two questions are “what is essential to being human?” and “how far can technology, psychology, medicine, etc. go in enhancing our humanness before it eliminates it?”
I am excited about the research and practices you’ve identified here and I believe positive psychology has a place. But society needs a conversation around the two questions, because they are the underpinnings of morality and ethics. Much of current law is based on the natural law concept by St. Thomas Aquinas. But under that law, if taken at face value, even organ transplants would be immoral because they are not the natural order. The interventions you mention above are far beyond St. Thomas’ ability to conceive.
Morality, ethics and philosophy have to catch up to modern technology so we move forward into the future you describe with a sense of what is human and how far we can go. And yes, I also believe positive psychology has an important place at that discussion. Very thought provoking. Thank you.
I’m not sure how PP willl be a guiding force when it doesn’t have the answers. Its only just started asking the question. To a certain extent the advances in technology might take PP out of the dark ages
I have mixed feelings about technology. For example I’m one of the few people who use biofeedback in resilience workshops. On the other side of the coin, I see people with lack of exercise and sleep (as a consequence of playing with technology) struggling to enjoy life
“We need to think about these things, not only in the context of positive psychology, but ethics, philosophy, evolutionary psychology, biology, etc. More than ever before we have the opportunity to be self-determined in our evolution, but only if we ask the question, “what do we want the future of humanity to be?””
^ I completely agree, particularly with the fact that these concerns should be analyzed from a vast number of standpoints in and out of the domain of just tech, or just psych. I think that any kind of transition / enhancement of CONSCIOUSNESS or SENTIENCE requires all the vigilance, carefulness, and collaboration as humanly possible. My grandest purpose at this time is to bring expertise together around these concerns.
Philosophy certainly has to catch up, and in line with the points above, I think philosophy will “work” best when it’s tapered with knowledge of tech, psych, politics, etc…
In fact, I believe that AI itself might be able to provide some massively insightful progress in philosophy, and the development and connection of concepts.
I think it’s the case that no field has “the answers” right now, and I also think that your skepticicsm with technology probably mirrors what a lot of us (including myself) feel instinctively. (IE: “Man + Machine = Whaaaat?!”). Hopefully developments in sentience will shed more light on PP as well (it seems likely that this will be the case – and much more).
Daniel – I have no doubt that technology will enhance research on PP. Imagine medicine without all the imaging, physiological and biochemical testing. ie back into the 1930’s. That’s where PP is now. Time to leap into the 21st century.
I use biofeedback in workshops and I am still one of the few to do so. This puzzled me until I started asking psychologists why the apathy. The answer I routinely get, to paraphrase, is that psychology is about the therapist interacting with the client – technology could never do that.
So I guess part of the inertia with psychology is psychologists. Great for my business but unfortunate for the world